“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

__________
See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Sense Of Place

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from my wife’s friend in Bristol; her husband is writing a novel. He had a question for me about New York City. Specifically he wanted to know something about Brooklyn.

You remember him? I wrote about him a few months ago. He’s the guy who’ll probably get a film deal after selling like, urr, a gazillion books…. and I’ll sell, uh, quite a few less. ;-)

I was startled he had a question about anywhere in the U.S. I say that because he has managed, without ever having even once set a foot in the U.S., to write vividly about life, people and places in the country. Everything he knows about the U.S. he has picked up from books, TV, films…. and, uh, me.

Amazing how some manage that. But I find there is also nothing more satisfying and useful than having walked the ground in the places you are using – or even just think may use – as story background. Doing that imbues a tale with a much more rooted “sense of place.”

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

I was unsurprisingly pleased (to be honest, ecstatic is a better word) when one of my readers wrote me that she enjoyed my detailing a Paris neighborhood where she had lived. She said it brought back happy memories. That I had been there myself definitely made a difference: I don’t know if I would have been able to write about it quite as I had if I had never been there in person.

Yep, umm, just like our pal Ernest Hemingway. ;-)

A Guy In Sunglasses….

….on a harbor tour back on Monday, with Fort Sumter in the background:

Me. Charleston harbor, South Carolina, July 2014.

Me. Charleston harbor, South Carolina, July 2014.

I recommend visiting Charleston, South Carolina. The city itself is more than worth seeing – its historic district in particular. Even more attractive, its people are just so darn pleasant.

One other thing. You can’t really tell from that photo, but it was not just sunny. It was also super-blazing hot!

Of course not that anyone would expect scorching heat in South Carolina in July? Would they? :-)

Happy Independence Day, 2014

A few thoughts on today’s U.S. Independence Day. It’s an extra-special one for us because it’s my wife’s first as a U.S. citizen. And she is – as you know if you visit regularly – British.

It’s also the first one for some time in which we are actually physically present in the U.S. We have often laughed on our trips around the U.S. over the years as to how the history of “1776 and all that” seems a bit awkward at times. Invariably, at some point, she’d hear some tour guide say something like this:

“Welcome. This is where George Washington lived. He was our first president. He led the American army in battle against the British.”

Or:

“This is the home of Thomas Jefferson. He is most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence during the war with Britain. He also once said he would have sunk that whole island into the sea.”

Or:

“Here, at Yorktown, this is where the Americans and the French cut off the British under Lord Cornwallis, and the British army eventually surrendered.”

She accepts all of that. That was then, she jokes; and things have changed rather a lot since. And, earlier this morning, she reminded me with a smile that this is “her country” too now.

However, one matter she is never too happy about is, uh, that “the French” were here! ;-)

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

The famous Tricolor we know so well is not the French flag under which France aided the U.S. in the war. The French flag then was that of the Ancien Régime. During the 1790s, Americans became split on whether they owed the new French revolutionary regime anything, given that regime was not the one that had helped America win independence.

And the U.S. Stars and Stripes was not the flag under which independence was declared either. But never mind. It all gets too complicated. :-)

Happy 4th of July!
________

UPDATE: That said, one Lynn Cole, resident in Italy, shares this view in The Guardian:

I am not a god-fearing, gun-toting, flag-waving, red-blooded American but a world citizen, and always have been.

She would hardly be the first to fancy herself a “world citizen.” To confirm it, my suggestion for anyone who holds that opinion is the next time you approach a border officer in airport arrivals in New York, London, Paris, Rome, or wherever globally, that you inform the officer of that status. A U.S., or other country’s, passport will no doubt not then be required of you as you are warmly greeted, “Welcome, World Citizen.”

Saved By Univision

Although it had shown the Algeria v. South Korea match earlier, ABC in the U.S. chose not to broadcast the U.S. v. Portugal game. Thus U.S. television network priorities. It relegated the U.S. game to cable sports channel ESPN – which is majority-owned by the Disney Company, which also owns ABC.

Our rental house does not have ESPN, so we watched the game on free to air, Spanish-language, Univision. Thank God for Univision. Our Spanish isn’t great, but you did not have to be Spanish-fluent to have understood what was going on when “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” was screamed out by the play-by-play guy.

Speaking to my Dad in Pennsylvania yesterday, he said the coverage on ESPN – a supposedly cutting edge sports channel – was itself irritatingly subpar. He told me the announcers’ voices were not even in synch with the action on the pitch for the entire game. Frankly, if we had had ESPN I might have watched the game on Univision anyway…. just to not give Disney/ABC’s ESPN the rating.

Sunday seemed to demonstrate that while increasing numbers of Americans now do get soccer, U.S. network TV executives clearly still don’t see it as mainstream. While the game did garner big ratings on their ESPN, it would have of course drawn even a larger audience on free to air ABC. They had this generation’s U.S. 1980 Winter Olympics hockey team playing World Cup soccer on Sunday at 6pm ET, and they didn’t realize it:

image

Then again, maybe ABC’s “World News” got the network more viewers at 6pm? Based on what I’ve seen of it, though, that program has not contained much that could be honestly termed “world” or “news” since Peter Jennings. It’s little more than a couple of quick headlines followed by vacuous gossip and tabloid features that is passed off to viewers – and presumably the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – as “news.”

Happy Hour

After a dinner out on Thursday evening, we decided to have a couple of drinks in a Cocoa Beach bar that was also attached to our hotel. As we walked in, I spotted several other couples sitting at the bar talking mostly to each other; and the bartender appeared personable enough. As we took bar stools, I thought, “Fine. This seems okay.”

Hmm. However, I had missed that one customer was a 30-something woman sitting by herself near the end of the bar, one empty seat over from the one I had just chosen. As my wife and I settled in, we noticed her son – who could not have been more than seven or eight – was with her, amusing himself at an unused pool table.

While we overheard her (it was impossible not to) increasingly emotionally bemoaning (I suppose reasonably enough) to a man the other side of the semi-circular bar about how she had lost all of her iPhone videos of her late mother, I ordered a Courvoisier. Beside me, my wife asked for a white wine. Having quickly scoped out what others were drinking, after the bartender stepped away to get our drinks my wife joked to me under her breath that he had probably not poured Courvoisier for anyone in ages.

Free Stock Photo: A mug of golden beer with a white froth, against a black background.

Free Stock Photo: A mug of golden beer with a white froth, against a black background.

Indeed he did appear to have served up largely beers. Obviously having heard me order it, after the bartender put the Courvoisier down in front of me, the 30-something woman asked me about it. As she did, she began to get exceedingly talkative and friendly.

Free Stock Photo: A Beautiful Woman Sitting At A Bar With A Drink [Editor's Note: This photo is merely for illustrative purposes, but I gather you've figured that out already.]

Free Stock Photo: A Beautiful Woman Sitting At A Bar With A Drink [Editor's Note: This photo is merely for illustrative purposes, but I gather you've figured that out already.]

Within seconds it became clear she had had too much to drink already. My wife was sitting directly next to me, on the other side of me. Listening to the woman’s ramblings, I noticed my wife look down at the floor and start shaking her head.

Fortunately other customers strolled in, and the woman had a new bunch to distract her. Among that group was a 20-something guy who was apparently a newly minted soccer scholar. Amidst his World Cup bluster, he started regaling the bar about Argentina being the best soccer team in the world, and how John Brooks is the best player ever.

And that guy had only just started drinking. After hearing him hold forth for rather too long, my wife (who is English and usually restrained in her opinions) took hold of her wine glass, leaned over and whispered into my ear, “He’s an idiot.”

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a drunk man with a mug and a watch.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a drunk man with a mug and a watch.

I hardly needed her to point that out, though. Suddenly the boozy 30-something woman called it a drinking session and offered a loud, slurry goodbye: “You are my favorite bartender!” She did not appear to be headed to a car, and the bartender seemed to know that. (My wife later told me she suspected the woman was a hotel guest.) Taking her son’s hand, she ambled out the door.

We finished our drinks. After we left, my wife remarked to me, “That place was such a pick-up joint. She didn’t care you were with me, or what your situation was.”

As I’ve reflected on that evening, I realize I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable in most U.S. bars. I never really relax in them. They are not like British pubs, which are often social places and serve meals.

True, pubs have their drunks, loudmouths, and those out “on the pull” too. But U.S. bars are often dimly lit, excessively cliquish, and devoted primarily to drinking and “escapism.” They may have a “happy hour,” yet more often than not they have struck me as sad places. :-(

Travels With Pets

It’s Sunday. After D-Day’s seriousness, we need a break. Let’s smile a bit. :-)

My mother-in-law loves to declare, “The French are so civilised. They love their dogs.” Indeed we notice there is much less fuss about our four legged friends there than we often see towards dogs in Britain and America.

“No Dogs Allowed” is a common sign in the U.S. and U.K. Even in rural areas in the U.S. – where there is not a person anywhere around for miles – often there’s that threatening sign, “Pets must be on a leash.” We know some dog owners can be irresponsible, but that’s the owner’s fault, not the dog’s.

Try scoping out a vacation home rental in the U.S. and asking the owner if you may bring your dog? Most will react to you as if you are carrying smallpox. In comparison, in France, while of course you do have to check in advance, and you may have to pay a little extra for the cleaning fee, holiday home owners have allowed our dog to stay without batting an eye.

Dino, in our holiday home in France, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Dino, in our holiday home in France, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

In France, pets are also generally allowed in restaurants and eateries. So Dino, our springador (who stays with my in-laws in London when we’re in America), gets to join us. He curls up under our table, usually at my feet (I keep him on a lead, of course; he is a dog), and I pass him some morsels from my plate.

When he’s not partaking in the meal, he pretty much just lies there and observes the passing French scene. Or he snoozes. Often there are well-behaved French dogs at other tables. Regularly, a staffer, unprompted, has brought out a bowl of water for him.

Yes, so “civilised.” Or maybe simply much less uptight is a better description. In any case, I hate to admit it when my mother-in-law makes a good point. ;-)

* * *

Dino’s a conversational ice breaker in public too. Other people with dogs chat with you as another dog-owner. In France, usually it’s a surprise when someone discovers you’re a foreigner: if they don’t hear you speaking English (or bad French), they assume you are French if they see you accompanied by a dog.

I also remember once on a beach tossing stones for Dino to chase into the surf (he never catches them), and seeing out of the corner of my eye a group of young teens watching him running into the water and then back toward me repeatedly. (If I didn’t stop, he’d play that game until he would collapse from exhaustion.) Obviously hearing my speaking English to my wife as she sat a distance away, one lad approached and asked me in English, “May I pet your dog, sir?” Dino behaved like a star and clearly loved the attention.

Dino, on a French beach, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Dino, on a French beach, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Our pal’s biggest “doggie quirk,” however, is for some reason he does not like “high visibility” jackets. That, as you might imagine, can be a rather awkward issue in certain official situations.

Once, going to France, we were making our way through passport control heading to the Channel Tunnel’s car train. From the car, dutifully at the window I handed over our passports to the French border officer sitting in his booth. (French passport control is in England, so there is no need to deal with it as you drive off; and British passport control inbound is in France similarly pre-loading. As much as Americans hear Britain and France “hate” each other, and their discord is a source for humor, their two governments actually do work together well.)

Seeing my U.S. passport mixed in with the rest of our car’s U.K. ones, the officer greeted me pleasantly. But in the back of our Volvo estate, quiet most of the time and so well-behaved there I often forget he’s lying back there, Dino unexpectedly pressed his nose to the side window and suddenly started barking all bl-ody murder at the officer. We couldn’t get him to pipe down. I think at one point he even spun around in a 360 degree circle.

Uh, I’m thinking, this is not good. After a few seconds of such foreign canine carrying on, the officer smiled wryly at me and remarked in perfect English tinged with an obvious French accent, “Ah, but I see he doesn’t like policemen?”

I tried to make light of the whole thing, and replied that he just doesn’t like those jackets.

He handed me back the passports. We were all allowed into the country….

* * *

To take your dog back into the U.K., you have to bring him to a vet within a 48 hour window prior to travel to the U.K. The vet makes sure your dog takes a worming tablet and stamps his U.K. “pet passport” for re-entry on the British side. It’s a bit of a hassle: you have to find a vet and make an appointment that falls within that tight window. But most French vets within reach of the ferries and Chunnel seem to know “the British returning to the U.K. with their dogs” pet drill by now.

Dino's pet passport. Yes, really. [Photo by me, 2010.]

Dino’s pet passport. Yes, really. [Photo by me, 2010.]

On one visit, my wife went to give Dino the tablet. Despite repeated coaxing from her, as I recall he spat it out at least twice. He never does that; at home, he always takes what he’s given.

Watching, eventually the vet intervened. “You give it him, uh, the medication with the food?” he asked us in English. “Please, you allow me,” he smiled.

He took hold of Dino. He then opened Dino’s mouth and held it open with some secret vet trick. Finally, he shoved the pill down Dino’s gullet so far it seemed the vet had stuck his arm in all the way up to his elbow.

I know dogs don’t have facial expressions. Yet, afterwards, I swear Dino looked bemused. It was almost as if he was thinking, “Uh, what just happened?”

“There, it is finish,” the vet announced. “Ah, he’s a good doggie.” :-)

Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

Rural U.S. Healthcare In Action

We flew from Heathrow to Newark, N.J. yesterday. It was a decent flight, but flying is always wearying – the time change never helping. Unsurprisingly, we’re a bit tired today.

Before it’s back to the Catskills, we’ve detoured to see my parents. My soon to be 73 year old Dad’s recently recovered from a bout with pneumonia. When my Mom took him to the urgent care two weeks ago, this is how the initial sign-in went:

The admitting nurse/ receptionist, questioning him: “So tell me what were you doing when you first felt that pain in your back?”

My Dad (having trouble breathing and barely able to speak): “Uh, I was outside, pulling weeds….”

image

The nurse: “You were smoking weed?”

The waiting room went dead silent. Welcome to rural Pennsylvania. I’m trying to picture an NHS nurse making that observation. ;-)